Programming Inequality at ISMIR 2020

Earlier this week, I had the immense privilege of sharing my work on programming on Canadian country format radio at the annual conference of the International Society for Music Information Retrieval. I have long wanted to attend this conference, but the timing had never worked out. This year, the conference was (to be) held in Montreal, Quebec — just a short drive from Ottawa. But like everything else this year, Covid-19 forced the conference online. Although I (like everyone else) am quite Zoomed-out right now, this was one of the most unique and fun virtual conference experiences I’ve had yet! From the opening keynote talk with Dr. Safiya Noble to hosting pop-in sessions on my paper via Slack, the experience revolved around discussion and networking in a way that I had never experienced at a conference. I had so many stimulating discussions on the impact of Big Tech on automating music recommendations and the bias built into these systems.

My paper for this conference expanded upon my September 2019 study of Canadian country format radio, focusing on programming of airplay for songs by men, women and male-female ensembles between 2005 and 2019, paying particular attention to geo-cultural origins of the artists. While country format radio in both the USA and Canada subscribe to a practice of gender-based programming, Canadian program directors are governed by the federal Broadcasting Act, which regulates dissemination of Canadian content, known under the patriotic name of the MAPL System. Using metadata extracted from one of the main radio monitoring services – Mediabase, this paper examines gender-related trends on Canadian country format radio between 2005 and 2019. Through data-driven analysis of Mediabase’s weekly reports, this paper shows declining representation of songs by women on Canadian country radio and addresses the impact of Canadian content regulations on this process.

In addition to gender and geo-cultural identity, however, this was my first paper to explore representation of Black, Indigenous, Musicians of colour (BIMOC) on Canadian terrestrial radio. Like our neighbours to the south, BIMOC artists are drastically under-represented on Canadian radio — just 3.9% of the artists with songs played on country radio. Looking at actually programming, representation of BIMOC remains around 3.6% of the number of unique songs and airplay for those songs. While I found an increase in representation in the final three years of this study period (from 0.2% of the annual airplay in 2005 to 8.3% by 2019, the majority of these spins were for men. The four women of colour whose songs received airplay between 2005 and 2019 received just 0.5% of the airplay. Of course, with such little support from terrestrial radio, these four faced significant barriers to the weekly charts. Although Rissi Palmer, Crystal Shawanda, Mickey Guyton and Kira Isabella each charted songs, only five songs by Shawanda and Isabella had enough airplay to reach the top 10 of the weekly airplay chart.

This study highlights a feedback loop that has slowly eliminated opportunities (in the form of daily airplay) for female artists and gradually erases them from the industry’s ecosystem. Women of colour are most impacted by this practice; with less than 1% of the overall airplay between January 2005 and December 2019, Black, Indigenous, Women of colour are erased from the Canadian format and have no opportunity for exposure. This type of gendered and racially motivated programming is culturally damaging and continues to perpetuate the white, male, heteronormative discourse that pervades country music’s narrative and culture. Want to learn more about programming on Canadian country format radio? You can read my paper in the conference proceedings (pages 392-399).

What also made this particular conference fun, was the opportunity to create a video and poster to accompany the published paper. I decided to get creative with my 4 minute video and reached out to my friend and collaborator, Canadian-New Zealand country singer-songwriter Tami Neilson to ask her to narrate the video as through she were a broadcast journalist. We had a lot of fun putting this video together, and I am grateful to her for adding her voice to this project.

“Programming Inequality: Gender Representation on Canadian Country Radio (2005-2019)”
Researched and written by Jada Watson. Narrated by Tami Neilson.

We also created research posters to share our findings as a way to provide a snapshot of the paper for those joining on the Slack calls to discuss individual research projects. (My poster can be downloaded below!)

This was a truly fascinating and rewarding conference experience. Hats-off to the program and local organization committees for creating a positive and engaging way to conference during the pandemic. Many new connections were made during these conference calls, and I am looking forward to future ISMIRs!